That supports requires some explanation, because Donald Trump is a far cry from the sort of leader white evangelicals say they admire. His personal life is well out of step with Christian teachings on fidelity, honesty, humility and charity. This rough fit indicates that the major driver for this support stems not from the teachings of the church so much as a political movement that has weaponized them over the last 40 years, promising a path to return to a Christian golden age that never actually existed.
The Pew survey revealed that Trump is more popular among white evangelicals who regularly attend church and less popular among those who do not. Why the divergence? Because many white evangelicals who attend church regularly came of age politically and spiritually in the 1980s, precisely when the Christian right was born.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals became anxious about perceived threats to white Christian culture in America. In 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court removed prayer and mandatory Bible reading from public schools. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 increased diversity in the country by opening it to large numbers of non-western immigrants, who brought their diverse religious beliefs with them.
In 1971, the Supreme Court, in Green v. Connolly, stripped the tax-exempt status from institutions that discriminated in their admissions policies based on race. This affected a host of Southern Christian schools and academies, many of which saw the decision in terms of “big government” threatening their religious liberty — the liberty to discriminate based upon their reading of the Bible.
And, of course, in 1973 the Court supported a women’s right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade.
It appeared that the world white evangelicals once knew was disappearing. Some of the leaders of the movement, buoyed by a renewed interest in American identity during the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, came to believe that the best way of fighting these social, cultural and demographic changes was to organize politically.
Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister from Lynchburg, Va., formed the Moral Majority to “train, mobilize, and electrify the Religious Right” in preparation to fight a “holy war” for the moral soul of America. Falwell’s organization played a major role in electing Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 and shaped a vision for white conservative evangelical political activity that remains strong today.
Falwell and Pat Robertson, a televangelist and 1988 candidate for president, taught white evangelicals that the only way to “win back America” and stem the rising tide of secularization and diversity was by electing Republicans.
From the perspective of these conservative white evangelicals, the Democratic Party was moving away from the traditional or family values that they understood to have defined the United States as a Christian nation. By contrast, Republicans had seized on the opportunity to welcome these fearful evangelicals into the fold by adopting their preferred positions on the crucial cultural issues causing so much angst in the evangelical community. Soon, these white evangelicals would control the party.
While it has failed to “win back” the culture, the political strength of the resultant movement cannot be underestimated. It has shaped much of white evangelical political activity in the 21st century. The result has been that, even as the GOP has achieved remarkably little for the Christian right over the past four decades, the ironclad relationship between white evangelical churchgoers and Republicans has, if anything, grown stronger.
The Christian right’s ability to convince white evangelicals that only political power can bring about meaningful change makes it one of the most important political movements in post-World War II America. It has convinced millions of Christians to reject the teachings of Jesus about the dangers of worldly power and put their trust in political saviors to advance God’s work in the nation and around the globe.
Today, the Christian right remains focused on the Supreme Court, which many evangelicals see as the chief impediment to their agenda on issues ranging from school prayer to LGBTQ rights to abortion. Their political playbook requires evangelicals to elect an attentive president who, in turn, will appoint socially conservative federal judges. Once these judges are in place, evangelicals believe they will be better positioned to win the battles over these key issues; saving the nation would avoid divine punishment for its sins.
That idea has remained so potent over the decades because it is embedded in evangelical churches. Pastors use their pulpits to speak about these cultural issues. Adult education classes in churches often focus on such topics. Members of small-group Bible studies discuss them. Some church leaders consistently stoke fear in their congregations by pointing to threats to religious liberty, both real and imagined.
Many white evangelical churchgoers now see the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade as equivalent to their call to share the Gospel with unbelievers. They subscribe to the message that the only way to live out evangelical faith in public is to vote for the candidates who will most effectively execute the 40-year-old Christian right playbook.
The movement’s message is so strong that even when pastors oppose the politicization of their religion, the message is not likely to persuade congregants. Indeed, many white evangelical pastors do not preach politics from their pulpit. Some speak boldly against the idolatrous propensity of their congregations to seek political saviors.
But these pastors cannot control the messaging their flocks imbibe after they leave church on Sunday. And a massive Christian right messaging machine targets these Americans with precision. Ministries and nonprofit organizations, driven by conservative political agendas, bombard the mailboxes, inboxes and social media feeds of ordinary evangelicals. Many of these organizations appeal to long-standing evangelical fears about cultural decline or provide selective historical evidence that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a “Christian nation,” even though this never was true.
Evangelicals filter what they hear during weekly sermons through Fox News and conservative talk radio, producing an approach to political engagement that looks more like the Republican Party than the Kingdom of God.
None of this is new. People in the pews (or in the case of evangelical megachurches, the chairs), have always been selective in how they apply their pastor’s sermons in everyday life. Evangelical Christians, from the Puritans to the present, have always mixed traditional Christian teachings with more non-Christian sources as they cultivate their religious lives. Today, however, cable television and social media expose white evangelicals to ideas that come from outside the church but that claim to be driven by Christianity at an unprecedented rate.
This strange but long-standing mix of biblical Christianity and conservative talking points empowers an incompetent and immoral president. It will likely have disastrous consequences for the future mission of born-again Christianity in the United States, as the redemptive message of the Gospel becomes little more than a political agenda that turns off those who otherwise might be longing for the spiritual solace it provides.
As long as the Christian right continues to hold sway in white evangelical churches, and as long as parachurch organizations encourage its agenda, the support for Donald Trump among these Christians who attend church regularly will remain steady.